What does it mean for a card to be powerful?
Is Bloodbraid Elf powerful?
Is Vampire Hexmage powerful?
Is Thopter Foundry powerful?
Is Nettle Sentinel powerful?
Each of those cards has been and will continue to be staples of decks that have dominated formats. If I asked if Jund at one point dominated a format, or if Dark Depths did, or if Elves did, the answer would of course be yes. So those cards are all powerful, right?
The conventional principle which has held together the glue of people’s deckbuilding conceptions for years is that formats are built on inherently powerful cards. Jund is a marvelous example. Cram the best Green, Red, and Black cards into a deck and call it a day. Jund works great, despite just being a three color goodstuff deck. In fact, Mike Flores recently said shortly after building his Worlds-winning Naya deck that the best way to design decks is just to play all of the best cards in the format. Bloodbraid Elf. Noble Hierarch. Path to Exile. If you just play all of the best cards, you can level your opponent by making every single one of your cards worth two of theirs.
But that’s not the only way it works. In fact, Jund is an anomaly. It is seldom raw power which dominates formats.
Let me ask you a question.
Is Dark Depths a powerful card?
The Coldsnap rare saw basically no reasonable competitive play from its point of release to the release of Zendikar. The card in and of itself is not something you would just play alone. In limited, which is a reasonable metric for a card’s average playability, Dark Depths was not playable.
And then there’s Vampire Hexmage.
Is Vampire Hexmage a powerful card?
Sure, it’s above the curve. It’s a 2/1 first striker for two with a decent upside against planeswalkers and allies. It makes the cut in some Standard Vampire lists. Above the curve, yes. On the same level as creatures as cards other people play in Extended like Wild Nacatl, or Tarmogoyf? No.
Put them together, though, and you have a combination which has the entire format in its tentacled grip.
Now, combos are nothing new. Over ten years ago, Illusions of Grandeur and Donate were the same kind of thing. Neither card was spectacular on its own, but if you put them together you have a deck so famous it transcends history.
So maybe combos are obvious exceptions. But what about something like Kenny Oberg Tezzerator at Pro Tour: Berlin? Cards like Pyrite Spellbomb and Aether Spellbomb aren’t Constructed All-Stars. But because of the dynamics of the deck and the format, they were crucial elements to his strategy.
What about Faeries? Peppersmoke would never see play normally, but because of the way the format evolved around Faeries and Kithkin, playing cards like Peppersmoke was what pushed the deck over the top against the mirror and tokens.
Now, what about Wrecking Ball? Last week, a prominent player said of Ultimecia, “There are numerous decks doing insanely broken things and you want to cast Wrecking Ball, Nicol Bolas, and Terminate. … I am just not on board with this.” But what is his justification? It’s purely based on theoretical card strength evaluations. But the truth is, Wrecking Ball holds a very important role.
Magic is a complex game with thousands of intricate pieces. The way we think to help categorize cards and strategies is to sift them, consciously or not, into playable and unplayable categories in our heads. We do this based on some arbitrary perceived power evaluation. Lightning Bolt is playable. Branching Bolt is not. Goblin Ruinblaster is playable. Demolish is not.
But what happens when I ask you to think about how powerful Sword of the Meek is?
Sword of the Meek clearly doesn’t fit into the same category as Lightning Bolt. It’s not “inherently powerful.” But yet, you still register it as playable because it’s played in a combination. But without Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek would be a card you still regarded as draft chaff.
The same is true for many of the other cards I mentioned above. Nettle Sentinel is “powerful” because it works well with Heritage Druid. Blood Moon is “powerful” because of the format it is in and the way people build decks. Vampire Hexmage is “powerful” because it creates a 20/20 with only one other card. All of these power rankings are set because of synergy.
Let me ask you another question. How powerful is Trained Armodon?
Trained Armodon isn’t anywhere near the realm of playability in your mind. And of course, why would it be? It hasn’t ever been something you’re excited about playing in Constructed.
But what happens when I ask about Gnarled Mass?
That provokes a little more reaction. Despite having the same stats as Armodon, Gnarled Mass was played — and quite successfully so — in Kamigawa Block Constructed. The same card provokes different a reaction because of past experience. That just shows you how subjective “power” is. Now, you probably wouldn’t think about playing it today — but at the time it was right to do so. And it took a lot of people time to get over it being an alleged “bad card.”
Now, one way to take this evidence is to go all existential on you and claim that cards themselves hold no power in a vacuum. Bloodbraid Elf is bad if there are no good cards that cost three or less in the format. Tarmogoyf is weaker if everybody is maindecking Leyline of the Void. Engineered Explosives is a poor call if everybody is playing storm combo decks.
The problem with that argument is that there is no takeaway. I’m not here to write useless Magic philosophy; I’m not here to be Descartes, telling you that “I think, therefore I am,” while you’re trying to scrape minimum wage making bricks. We are playing a real game in a world where Tarmogoyf is always going to be good, so talking like that doesn’t help us.
One takeaway here is “power” is entirely subjective. We categorize cards as “powerful” relative to other cards. Wild Nacatl is more powerful than Isamaru, Hound of Konda, which is more powerful that Mon’s Goblin Raiders. But in reality, the most powerful card is the one which is going to allow us to win the game. You can fall into tempo disadvantage black holes, throw away card advantage, and fall behind each match in interaction advantage, but at the end of the day all that matters is winning-the-game advantage; or, perhaps more elegantly said, deck advantage.
If you set up the game up to a position where a certain card is going to allow you to win the game, then that card is powerful regardless of how powerful it normally is.
The big takeaway here is this: after seventeen years of Magic playing and theory, there are three modern day schools of deck design.
The first is the aforementioned school of just playing all of the best cards. If you play a deck full of Bloodbraid Elves, Blightnings, Sprouting Thrinaxes, and Putrid Leeches, you’re going to win numerous amounts of games based on card quality alone. Zoo is a deck which always falls into this category. The card quality of Zoo decks is just filthy. Tarmogoyfs, and Wild Nacatls, and Knights of the Reliquary, alongside Path to Exile and Bant Charm. Lightning Bolt, one of the best burn spells ever printed, is their worst card. This is still a completely valid way to build decks. But in recent times, a lot of the best decks have been made in using the other methods.
The second way to build decks is to build a deck on synergy. Dark Depths and Vampire Hexmage. Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek. Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, and Mistbind Clique. Spectral Procession and Glorious Anthem. You surround cards with complimentary cards, sometimes ridiculous combos and sometimes merely high-class synergies, and you can end up overpowering the decks that play a mishmash of good cards because you have higher power through synergy of multiple cards.
The third way — and the way less looked at — is to build a deck based on assigning roles. Cards like Mold Shambler; Wrecking Ball; Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs; and, yes, even Gnarled Mass can be perfectly fine deck choices if they compliment your plan. Every card in Magical Christmas Land builds toward a plan. Every card in Critical Mass builds toward a plan. Every card in Ultimecia builds toward a plan. Are they all cards which would normally headline decklists? No. But they coalesce into a cohesive unit that works toward executing a plan which ultimately achieves victory, regardless of how many Wrecking Balls were cast.
If you look at consistent flourishing deckbuilders and innovators like Conley Woods, Jonathon Loucks, and John Treviranus, they all have one thing in common: they aren’t afraid to reanalyze cards. Woods and Loucks have both told me that they go through the entire spoiler on Gatherer with an open mind when deckbuilding, and they consider each and every card for its possibilities, and I’m sure Treviranus does the same. We get into a rut of established power levels in our head, but those power levels really mean nothing. The best innovators aren’t afraid to think about using unplayed cards to fill roles. And neither should you.
Thanks for reading, and I’m very interested to hear what you have to say in the forums. Let me know what you think either by posting in there, or by sending me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. Also, if any of you PTQ’d with Ultimecia this weekend, I’d love to hear how you did. I worked with several of you on the deck over e-mail and in the forums, and it would be great to hear how the deck bore out in your PTQ.
I look forward to talking with you soon!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else